Tasting the Torah
The poem, Ha’azinu, is very beautiful and also a bit inscrutable. One of the ways that the Rabbinic tradition enables us to find meaning in this poem is to have it speak more generally about the Torah and God’s way of interacting with the world. The second and third verses in particular open up to reveal a critical lesson regarding how we should relate to the Torah. It teaches us that the way we choose to relate to the Torah can determine its effect on us and its meaning for us. The poem reads:
יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי דֶשֶׁא וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי עֵשֶׂב: כִּי שֵׁם ה' אֶקְרָא הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלֹהֵינוּ:
Let my lesson fall like rain and my speaking drizzle like dew; like mist upon the meadow and like droplets upon the grass. When I call out to HaShem, (you) ascribe greatness to our God!
Moshe’s teaching, which he wants his listener to absorb and be saturated by, is, of course, the Torah. When, in verse 3, Moshe speaks about calling out God’s name and eliciting a response, it seems that he has changed topic from the study of Torah to the praise of God. However, the Talmud understands that this second verse does not represent a shift in focus at all. According to the Talmud, the praising of God also refers to the Torah, specifically: the union of Torah and prayer. It encodes the requirement to make a blessing on the Torah before studying it:
תלמוד בבלי ברכות כא.
אמר רב יהודה… מנין לברכת התורה לפניה מן התורה? שנאמר - כי שם ה' אקרא הבו גדל לאלהינו.
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 21a
Rav Yehudah said: From where do we know that there is a berakhah made before studying Torah? As it says, When I call out to HaShem, ascribe greatness to our God!
The obligation to make a blessing on the study of Torah carries a lot of significance. The Talmud in Nedarim (81a) provides two consequences for neglecting these blessings. It claims that the reason why Torah scholars do not pass on their legacy to their children is that they do not make the blessings over the Torah. And it goes so far as to state that the Temple was destroyed on account of ignoring this mitzvah! However, the Gemara does not explain what it is about this particular blessing that makes it so critical. Why does omitting these blessings have such devastating consequences?
In order to understand the significance of this ritual, it is critical to understand its context and where it comes from. In Berakhot1 (48b), R. Yishmael and his students learn that we need to make a blessing on the Torah from the fact that we need to bless before and after partaking of the physical pleasures of this world:
תלמוד בבלי ברכות מח:
ואין לי אלא ברכת המזון, ברכת התורה מנין? אמר רבי ישמעאל: קל וחומר, על חיי שעה מברך - על חיי עולם הבא לא כל שכן? רבי חייא בר נחמני תלמידו של רבי ישמעאל אומר משום רבי ישמעאל: אינו צריך, הרי הוא אומר: וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָךְ, ולהלן הוא אומר: אתנה לך את לחת האבן והתורה והמצוה וגו' (שמות כד:יב).2
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 48b
I only have a proof for blessing on food, from where do we derive blessing on the Torah? R. Yishmael said: It is a kal vahomer 3—If one makes a blessing on one’s temporary life [that is, the material world of which eating is a part] isn’t it obvious that one would make a blessing on eternal life?! R. Hiyya bar Nahmani, R. Yishmael’s student, says in his name: This [logical inference] isn’t necessary [instead we can use a direct linguistic connection between these to verses]. For it says, And you will eat and be satisfied and bless HaShem your God for the good land that He has given to you. And further it says, I will give you the tablets of stone, the Torah and the law etc.
R. Yishmael’s proof is difficult. Granted that the Torah pertains to eternal life and food is a temporal, this-worldly concern, but that doesn’t prove that you can compare them or derive laws from one to the other. Yet, R. Yishmael powerfully assumes that the blessings on the Torah and the blessings on food are related. The fact that he doesn’t feel that he needs to establish the connection between them points to the strength of his conviction. R. Hiyya bar Nahmani’s proof has the same character. The language of נתן, of giving, is not so rare, and the placement of that verb in both verses is not so compelling, that one would naturally think to connect them. It is only because he has absorbed the Torah of his teacher that it is clear to him that these two categories are linked. Obviously, we talk about the blessings for food and for the Torah together! R. Yishmael is messaging to us in a not-so-subtle way that the only way to truly understand the significance of the blessings on the Torah is to look at them through the lens of the blessings on food.
Much ink has been well spent in trying to classify the blessings of the Torah4—are these blessings simply a blessing on the mitzvah of studying Torah? On the Torah itself? Are they a request? Are they praise? The answer is, of course, all of the above. But what is unique about the blessing on the Torah is that by connecting its source to the blessings on food, we see that it is in fact a birkat hanehenin as well, a blessing that we make upon receiving pleasure of benefit from this world. Seen in this light, the purpose of making a blessing on the Torah is to make the experience of learning Torah more like the experience of eating and enjoying a sustaining meal.
We see this orientation most clearly from the Talmud’s discussion of the details of the blessing:
תלמוד בבלי ברכות יא:
א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל השכים לשנות עד שלא קרא קריאת שמע צריך לברך משקרא קריאת שמע אינו צריך לברך שכבר נפטר באהבה רבה... מאי מברך א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לעסוק בדברי תורה ור' יוחנן מסיים בה הכי הערב נא ה' אלהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפיפיות עמך בית ישראל ונהיה אנחנו וצאצאינו וצאצאי עמך בית ישראל כלנו יודעי שמך ועוסקי תורתך ברוך אתה ה' המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל ורב המנונא אמר אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו ברוך אתה ה' נותן התורה...
Talmud Bavli Berakhot 11b
Rav Yehudah said that Shmuel said: If he got up early to learn [before one may say the morning prayers], if he still has not read the Shema, he needs to say the blessings [on the Torah]. Once he has read the Shema, he no longer needs to bless, since he exempted himself by saying [the blessing of] “Ahavah Rabbah,” a great love… What does he say in the blessing? Rav Yehudah said that Shmuel said: “Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to engage in words of Torah.” And R. Yohanan would conclude,5 “Make the words of Your Torah pleasing in our mouths and the mouths of Your people the house of Israel. And let us and our progeny, the house of Israel, all be knowers of Your name and engagers in Your Torah. Blessed are You, God, Who teaches Torah to His people Israel.” And Rav Hamnuna said, “Who has chosen us from all of the people and given us His Torah. Blessed are You God Who gives the Torah.”
The blessing on the Torah situates the Torah as something delicious and inviting. R. Yohanan’s language of “הערב נא, may it be pleasing in our mouths,” is language that we use to talk about food, something that is pleasing to one’s palette. And this orientation is underscored by the fact that if one says the blessings on the recitation of the Shema, one is exempt from reciting the blessings on the Torah. The reason for this is that the fundamental theme of the blessing right before the Shema is ahavah, love, a recognition that the giving of the Torah is an expression of God’s love and something that engenders more love from we who receive and engage with it.
The reason it is so critical to make these blessings and to classify Torah as something that benefits us, as something that is loving and sweet, is that it is not at all clear from our experience that the Torah is primarily pleasant!6 This is reflected in our parashah:
תלמוד בבלי תענית ז.
רבא רמי כתיב יערף כמטר לקחי וכתיב תזל כטל אמרתי. אם תלמיד חכם הגון הוא כטל ואם לאו עורפהו כמטר.
תניא היה ר' בנאה אומר כל העוסק בתורה לשמה תורתו נעשית לו סם חיים שנאמר עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה (משלי ג:יח) ואומר רפאות תהי לשרך (משלי ג:ח)... וכל העוסק בתורה שלא לשמה נעשית לו סם המות שנאמר יערף כמטר לקחי ואין עריפה אלא הריגה שנאמר וערפו שם את העגלה בנחל (דברים כא:ד).
Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 7a
Rava juxtaposed [two phrases]: It is written, Let my lesson fall like rain (ya’arof k’matar), and it is written, Let my speaking drizzle like dew (tizal katal). If he is a proper scholar of the Torah, then it will be [pleasant] like dew and if not, it will crush him (orfahu) like rain.
It was taught that R. Bena’ah said: Anyone who engages in Torah for its own sake, his Torah becomes an elixir of life, as it says, It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it and it says, It is a healing for your body (Mishlei 3:18, 8)... but anyone who engages in the Torah not for its own sake, [the Torah] becomes an elixir of death. As it says, Let my lesson fall like rain (ya’arof k’matar), and the root araf means killing, as it says, They crushed (ve’arfu) the calf there in the river (Devarim 21:4).7
Rava understands that the Torah can be difficult; it can be a nurturing and sweet elixir of life, but it can also be a poison. It can set high expectations that might crush us emotionally when we don’t meet them. Worse, if we don’t engage with the Torah properly, it can have the opposite of its intended effect; it can make us into worse people rather than better. The Torah can even make us feel further from God and strain our relationship rather than making us feel closer to Him and that we understand each Other.
This is why we need to make a blessing on the Torah, because the success of our relationship with the Torah depends entirely on our attitude towards it. By declaring it an elixir of life, it becomes an elixir of life. If we think of it as a bitter medicine, an elixir of death, it can be hard, if not impossible, for us to swallow. The Metzudat David 8 explains this in the context of Tehillim:
מצודת דוד תהילים קיט:צב
לולי תורתך שעשועי - אם לא היתה עסק תורתך משמח אותי אז הייתי נאבד בעבור רוב עניי …
Metzudat David Tehillim 119:92
Were the Torah not my delight—If engaging in the Torah did not make me happy, then I would become lost on account of my numerous sufferings [which come about from sin] 9…
The connection between delighting in the Torah and not being crushed by our sins and their consequences is not obvious, but it is quite clear. A critical component of the Torah’s ability to instruct us is our feeling that we love it, and that it loves and cares about us in turn. Just as with a parent or with a teacher, where we are only receptive to what they have to say when we feel the warmth and affection that lies behind a sometimes harsh and difficult message, so too with the Torah. When we feel that the Torah supports us and has faith in us, we can withstand the fact that it points out our sins, that it can make life a bit more challenging for us. When we understand the Torah as sweet, we experience it that way.
Throughout the Torah, we are told to obey the Torah and to live by its laws, but at the end of Moshe’s life, the message is also to enjoy the Torah, to see it as a source of pleasure. We need to read the Torah through the lens of sweetness and encouragement, to see that its main purpose is to support us and enable our growth. When we say the blessing upon it, we renew our commitment to following a Torah which is sustaining and sweet.
1 In the Talmudic passage we cited earlier, the blessings on the Torah are also discussed within the context of Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals).
2 The connection between blessing on food and blessing on the Torah is also found in Nedarim 81a through the opinion of R. Yohanan. There, he says that blessings before eating are derived from blessing before studying Torah. Although the anonymous stratum ultimately rejects R. Yohanan’s logic, his statement stands on its own as an articulation of the strong connection between these two blessings.
3 A kal vahomer is an argument made a fortiori. If something applies to the less obvious, or weaker case, clearly it applies to the stronger or more obvious case as well. For example, if I can’t eat a cracker because it isn’t healthy, then obviously I couldn’t eat an entire ice cream sundae. So I don’t need to be told about the prohibition on the ice cream explicitly, since I can infer it from the prohibition on the cracker.
4 The Rambam in Hilkhot Berakhot 1:4 divides blessings into three possible categories: blessings on benefit (e.g. blessing before eating an apple), blessings on the performance of mitzvot (e.g. blessing before lighting Hanukkah candles), and blessings of praise (e.g. blessings in prayer).
5 In some manuscripts, it says “say” here, indicating that this is his own, independent opinion, not the conclusion of the first berakhot.
6 In fact, immediately after the derivation of the requirement to make a blessing on the Torah, R. Meir speaks about the need to praise God for both the bad and the good:
ר"מ אומר מנין שכשם שמברך על הטובה כך מברך על הרעה ת"ל אשר נתן לך ה' אלהיך דיינך בכל דין שדנך בין מדה טובה ובין מדה פורענות…
7 The ritualized breaking of the calf’s neck happens when there is an unexplained murder in the vicinity. The elders of the city closest to the corpse proclaim their innocence and symbolically break the neck of the animal.
8 R. David Altshuler, 1687-1769, Prague.
9 This term can also be understood as sins, or sufferings that specifically come on account of sin, which is how the Metzudat David appears to understand it in the continuation of his comments.